We guitarists spend beaucoup bucks on shiny toys we hope and dream will make us better players and summon the muse. But we don’t always have to open our wallets to derive joy from music. Tinkering with our equipment, tweaking our instruments, discovering new uses for things we might have taken for granted—these are just some of the ways to stay engaged with guitar without making a trip to the gear emporium.

There’s a big overlap between the DIY and life-hacker cultures, and it can be fun to explore the intersection of these two mindsets from the perspective of guitar, so let’s give it a shot. Our ground rules are simple: We’ll look at ways to squeeze functionality out of items that cost no more than a burrito and beverage at your favorite taqueria. We’ll arbitrarily set this at $12, although all but one of our dozen hacks come in well below that.

Sometimes a hack simply means seeing an object in a new light.

I’m loosely defining “hack” as using an item for something other than its intended purpose. Often there’s some modification involved, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes a hack simply means seeing an object in a new light. Let’s begin with one of those.

Slide display rack. If you play slide guitar, no doubt you’ve discovered how much fun it is to collect the tools of your trade. So many materials, shapes, and sizes! Why hide these beauties in a shoebox? If you have a cool collection, it’s fun to display it. Having all your slides within reach will also inspire you to experiment with different sounds and techniques, and thus grow as a player.

Photo 1

Maybe you’ve seen those bamboo racks designed to hold dishes vertically to air-dry after being washed. Guess what? They’re perfect for holding slides at attention (Photo 1). Readily available and priced at about $8, these racks do the job right out of the box.

Safe knob removal. When you want to replace a potentiometer or even just tighten its nut, the first step is to remove the knob. If it’s a press-on knob, don’t reach for a screwdriver! It will damage the pickguard or—worse yet—gouge your guitar’s top.

Photo 2a

Here’s an inexpensive alternative that won’t damage your beloved axe. You’ll need a palette knife—a $5 tool with a flexible steel blade that painters use to apply or mix paints—and a good ol’ wooden clothespin with its internal spring removed (Photo 2a).

Photo 2b

Slide the thin blade under the knob, then carefully turn the knob as you slowly lift the palette knife straight up, gently flexing its blade as you go. Turn and pry, keeping the blade flat against the pickguard or top so it doesn’t mar the surface (Photo 2b).

Photo 2c

Go easy—just work the knob up enough to allow you to replace the knife with one half of the clothespin with its flat side against the guitar (Photo 2c).

Photo 2d

Continue turning and prying, using the clothespin as a wedge. It won’t take long to coax the knob off its shaft (Photo 2d).